Only Autodidacts Are Free: The Art of Alexandre Frangioni

The list of scientists, artists, and innovators who have taught themselves is long and distinguished. Among their company are Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Frida Kahlo, and Machado de Assis, Brazil’s greatest literary figure—a novelist, poet, playwright, and short-story writer who found the time and energy to teach himself French, English, German, and Greek despite not having spent a single day at university. William Blake, another eminent automath, spelled out the strength of the self-educated in a typically unconventional poem: autodidacts live, he wrote, as if “nature has no outline but imagination has.”

So it is with the Brazilian artist Alexandre Frangioni, a mostly self-taught artist who was formally educated as a Chemical Engineer at São Paulo’s Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie. After working in the pharmaceutical industry for more than three decades, the future creative turned from science to art, taking up painting as a way of disconnecting from his nine-to-five routine. “I was looking for an activity to dedicate myself to after retirement,” he told one interviewer in 2017, “and found an easy way to manage my time and space with painting. In addition, it was directly related to drawing, which I have enjoyed since I was very young.”

Initially, Frangioni took up figurative oil painting as a way of reimagining life a new. Predictably, emotions and the psychological states associated with color theory were the first impulses he tapped into. Eventually, under the tutelage of an artist friend, the installation artist João Carlos de Souza, he moved away from making figurative pictures and toward artworks that connect discursively with larger cultural ideas.

Ironically, these ideas dovetailed with his professional training. To paraphrase the artist: if he started out by cultivating non-rational impulses to arrive at his early oils, he soon found himself relying on more complex “intentions” to engineer the forms, effects, and, ultimately, the vision he would later harness for his decidedly conceptual artworks.

This process of “inversion,” as Frangioni describes it, started when he began documenting his paintings through photographs. That process kicked off an engagement with photography as a medium. In short order, that study generated an embrace of collage. These and other early laboratory-like explorations, in their turn, led to the artist establishing a set of complex procedures through which he filtered a number of increasingly intellectual concerns. Around 2015, when Frangioni made the move to finally ditch his day job, he found himself making artworks that appeared to resemble, if not directly reference, classic conceptualist artworks made in Brazil during the era of military dictatorship.

However inadvertently, Frangioni put himself in a situation familiar to many of history’s notable autodidacts. Instead of reinventing the wheel, he found himself hard at work realigning or putting a new spin on it. Only after his 2015 breakout show at the Museu de Arte de Blumenau in southern Brazil did the artist fully grasp the scope of his achievement. Like a gifted footballer reinventing the moves of Garrincha and Pelé he found he had reformulated Brazil’s legacy of conceptual art through several bodies of two and three-dimensional works. On closer inspection, he also appeared to have rewritten, or at least reinterpreted, various chapters in the history of the ready-made—as seen, for instance, in the oeuvres of European and American proto-conceptualists like Marcel Duchamp, Joan Brossa, and Claes Oldenburg.

“The only reference I had when I made my first currency works was that of Cildo Meireles ‘Who killed Herzog?’; that is, the Cruzeiro notes he stamped with that text,” Frangioni says when asked about his connection to the creator of Insertions Into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project (1970). “I had yet to see Meireles’ ‘Zero Cruzeiros’ banknotes, which I encountered in person in São Paulo in 2018, three years before I made my show “Moedas” at the Blumenau.” An exhibition that featured several bodies of work that use currency as a medium—among them Brazilian, British, and U.S. banknotes and his first cofrinhos, or piggy banks — “Moedas” proved to be Frangioni’s debut as a latter-day Brazilian conceptualist. It was also, paradoxically, his declaration of independence. As he told this writer with regard to Meireles’ potential influence: “I should say my particular use of currency as a medium was very different”

Like Meireles’ artworks, Frangioni’s pieces are often described as “philosophical objects” or “thoughts made material.” They demonstrate strong links to crucial historical approaches to conceptual art—such as those attending Duchamp’s ready-mades and Brossa’s “object poems.” But if Meireles developed his variegated Insertions into Ideological Circuits to propagate subversive slogans and explore the notion of circulation—they employ banknotes and other objects tied to systems of circulation like bottle deposit systems—Frangioni’s intentions run to the fundamentally philosophical. Not satisfied with political critique or with merely questioning the role of capital, his use of various types of currencies principally explore how time and memory affect past and present value, as well as how those objects transform material goods throughout history.

The relationship between time and memory, in fact, plays a leading role in Frangioni’s recent production, especially as it relates to personal and collective experience. In interviews the artist has spoken about the ability of some of his artworks to keep alive, in the manner of emblems or totems, the memories of economic hyperinflation in 1980s Brazil—a time when social and political instability in that country was at its peak. “I lived through the 1980s in Brazil and our currency lost 80% of its value every month,” he said to this writer in one conversation. “People got paid one day and forty eight hours later the same money was so devalued it literally could not put food on the table.”

If, as with Brossa, the motor driving Frangioni’s art is visual metonymy, the rhetorical trope that substitutes the name or a part of something for the thing meant, then his use of that device routinely surpasses the expectations associated with most signs and symbols. By concentrating on largely familiar but misunderstood emblems— including coins, bills, flags, and stamps—the artist underscores both their prosaic nature and the danger produced by their frequent swings and fluctuations. Symbols like these are firmly embedded in the collective imagination, sometimes to a perilous degree. To work with them, never mind call them into question, is to manipulate some of the least examined, most combustible assumptions amassed by human culture across the ages.

Works like Frangioni’s steel and acrylic Cofres, or safes, and the discrete objects and installations he has serialized under the title Exodus fundamentally operate like abbreviated sculptures. One such work, “Cofre #1253 – Pião” (2017), is an imagist poem in three dimensions: it contains a single spinning wooden top and oodles of string inside a see-through acrylic lockbox. Like his Exodus works, it’s nearly blithe in its concision.

Exodus I, the first work in the artist’s now celebrated series, was conceptualized but not exhibited as originally planned at the Museu de Arte de Blumenau: the institution refused to compromise the museum walls. An installation of 500 coin-encrusted cofrinhos, which the artist fabricated using lenticular 3D printing, it was designed to array its individual parts into two meandering queues. What it illustrated conceptually was nothing less than the social phenomenon of capital flight: money escapes through one mouse hole in Brazilian reals and returns through another in U.S. dollars.

Frangioni’s attitude to knotty ideas that can be difficult to conceptualize can be effectively summarized in a phrase: he casts complex ideas in efficaciously simple visual nutshells. The fact that he prefers to make his objects and installations clear rather than obscure comes in handy when using advanced technologies and engineering. Take his work Leminiscata (2019). A series of wall-mounted cofrinhos organized as an infinity symbol of varying width, it mobilizes a term derived from algebraic geometry to represent a fundamental act of exchange — “the relationship people have to money.” Put in the artist’s words: “Sometimes we live through periods where we have more money and other times less; but we are always chasing it cyclically, repetitively, from generation to generation.”

Another recent work QR Code II (2017) reprises the artist’s unspoken mantra of providing access to complex concepts or histories, but this time in computer code. Created for the Museu de Arte de Ribeirão Preto (MARP), Frangioni fabricated this giant 3D version of the square emblem familiar to mall shoppers around the globe from boards made from pink peroba, a native Brazilian hardwood. The code’s unexpected virtual reveal is Dittingly immanent: once activated the symbol led viewers to a website that presented the history of the museum’s building, as well as images of its construction and building details.

The repetition of ideas in the visual arts—among them symbols, codes, icons, and artistic traditions— usually has the aim of reinforcing standard meanings. In Alexandre Frangioni’s hands, though, they routinely propose readings that lead to robustly original views of familiar signs. Which begs the question, how does this artist consistently manage to see the world with fresh eyes? I propose a well-documented conclusion: only autodidacts are free.

Christian Viveros-Fauné, Brooklyn, 2021

Code can be defined as a combination of symbols or signs, which, in an established system, acquires a certain value, message or representation, in other words, a significance.

Throughout the history of mankind, codes have always been present, each of which in its own time, such as the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Since then, current events have developed from the simplest to the most complex types of codes, for various uses, such as Morse code, bar code, QR code, among others.

On the other hand, the development of technologies, as well as the emergence of new needs by contemporary society, have led to the diffusion of the virtual, be it space, person, action or information, becoming part of the daily lives of the majority of the world population. The massive intervention of new technologies has opened to a new challenge: to understand how much the virtual situates us more or less close to reality. The exhibition Códigos [Codes], therefore, proposes the reversal of real and virtual spaces.

Usually, the exhibition room, the real space, presents objects to be seen, appreciated. In this exhibition, however, the real space shows only QR codes, that is, symbols and their meanings. As for the objects to be featured, in this case the place, is moved to a virtual environment, where the only access is given through the QR codes.

About bar and QR codes

Bar code is the graphical representation of a numerical sequence used to identify a product. Both graphical and numerical representations have the same value. This set of numbers is unique, as the same combination cannot be applied to different products.

As for the QR (Quick Response) is a two-dimensional barcode that can have its meaning easily accessed through the camera of most mobile phones. Initially, it was used for cataloguing parts of vehicles during the production process and has now been used for various purposes, such as inventory management and stock control in industries and commerce, as well as marketing and communication campaigns in magazines and advertisements, registering detailed information of addresses and URLs. Nowadays, there are already free apps for mobile phones that help users to read these codes, such as QR Reader (IOS), QR Droid (Android), among others.

Alexandre Frangioni

Works of art have the power to blow our mind, opening the doors of our perception.

When poetry, film or a certain object of art captures our imagination and our soul, we are no longer the same person.

This exhibition poetically features aspects of three central subjects: spatial perception, time and memory. It proposes a new space, sometimes through light, sometimes through time. Not only chronological, but also the time that leads us directly to memory. Memory that can be related to a lifetime or to a single moment. The idea here is, but not only so, to open the pores, so to ventilate those three concepts: space, time and memory.

The artist João Carlos de Souza addresses these issues through his “constructed landscapes.” One of the most delicate questions of our time is that there are no more natural landscapes. Through the light sculpture Balançar [To swing], the artist reminds us of these spaces. It also plays with the interior setting of the exhibition space, highlighting it through a series of works built with fluorescent lights. Still, the magical eye of the Porta Cora Coralina [Cora Coralina door], the viewer is taken to another place.

At first glance, Alexandre Frangioni seams to present less poetic works. They propose discussions as of the values of contemporary societies, from the harsh monetary point of view, related to accumulation and transformation. Among other works, however, through a closer look, Cofres [Safes] discuss the real importance of what they are protecting by the reversal of its original function of guarding and hiding, reminding us, in a poetic and playful way, what really matters. Frangioni’s works situate us in a place between childhood and maturity, in the constant exercise of time and memory. Here, one can get the synthesis of his work poetics.

They are two artists moved by the will to investigate and to experience different ways of expression. They produce a singular art, recognizable within the different languages they explore. They are two artists showing paths ahead of their time.

Adriana Rede

In commemoration of its twenty years of activity, Espaço Ophicina open its doors to the Collective Occupation “the desire of the other”, which brings together works of thirteen artists. “The desire of the other” began with the proposal of challenging the poetics of those artists, aiming “to choose the place of the other” in the Espaço Ophicina.

During the succeeding meetings, the arguments, followed by reflections and then by the doubts, pointed out the paths that each artist would guide their researches on “desire”. Some concepts reverberated and encouraged the creative processes: “man’s desire is the desire of the other”; “desire is initially acquired by the other in a more confused way” (Lacan); “the desire as a fault” (Plato); “we can only desire what we do not have” (Socrates); “desire is like a pendulum that takes us from pain to boredom…. desire can only be one thing: the will to power! Everything is in the rank of abundance, exuberance! “(Nietzsche); “desire is a set of passive syntheses that devises partial objects, the flows and the bodies, and which functions as units of production” (Deleuze & Guattari). What was at first just an occupation, the reflections about these sentences were transforming the creative processes into effective proposals.

“Game of wishes” stablished connections between the different times. By using the Tetris game aesthetics, the proposal referred to the past, while appropriating the desire of the other artists of the exhibition and then represent them, incorporating part of the aesthetics of each one as a present time and using everyone’s desire as a future.

In Latin America, Contemporary Art practices steadily gain more ground and distance from the Western traditions that had always influenced a large portion of the creators of the New World. At present, we can appreciate artists that manage to express universal traits with authenticity and uniqueness. Brazil, starting with the creations of the 1922 Modern Art Week, initiated a modern stage within the different manifestations of art. It was a decisive moment, when they took on the artistic vanguard of the continent.

There have been many outstanding artists whose names are essential to analyze the visual practices of this South American country: Ivan Serpa, Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica, and Adriana Varejão are some of the artists that spring to mind. They are all deeply related to the process of change and progress in Brazil and demonstrate signs of being at the vanguard in all their pieces. These aspects are also well represented in the productions of Alexandre Frangioni (São Paulo, 1967).

About Frangioni, we have to keep in mind that he is a self-taught in the universe of visual arts. He is a professional Engineer, but started working with painting in 2005 as a way of disconnecting from the stress of his profession: “I was looking for an activity to dedicate myself to after retiring and found in painting an easy way to manage my time and space. In addition, it is directly related to drawing, which I have enjoyed since I was very young,” he says.

Thus, Frangioni’s art evolved and, starting from the two-dimensional perspective, he kept experimenting until he found the way that currently distinguishes him. His point of view had always been focused on traditional and modern art. However, situations and problems in his country made him to question the manifestation that he worked with – painting – until this medium began evolving and became three-dimensional, a modus operandi that is related to his profession. That is to say, Frangioni not only practiced his creative side but also his engineering skills through the planning, development, and execution of his work, through advanced technology. That is how he started using 3D and lenticular printing, which are part of a more object and process-centered method.

Two highly significant exhibitions, which were turning points in his career, are the ones he presented in the Museu de Arte in Blumenau (2015) and in the Campo Grande Museu de Arte Contemporânea (2016). Both were loaded with ideas and exercises that defined his style, and he was able to use the space as an important and supplementary factor for the pieces. Likewise, the series Êxodo [Exodus] grew and improved within the exhibition space.

Frangioni speaks about memory and time, two aspects that are tightly linked in his proposals. Likewise, he reflects about and analyzes the values (social, commercial, political, economic) that exist in contemporary societies. The economic value – central axis – is transformed into the raw materials of his thoughts, and therefore his discourse is based on maintaining the memories of the economic hardships in Brazil with hyper-inflation in the 80’s and 90’s. I emphasize, and so does he, that “it is not done as a critique of his society but as a way to bring to the forefront a cultural fact and the social values dictated by certain events within his culture, that is to say, oblivion.” Êxodo, thus, approaches the way in which money is accumulated, transformed, and its impact on different societies. The use of the piggy bank, each with its own currency, is a selection with a very strong universal semantic charge. His iconography is easily interpreted by the public. I believe that he is not interested in making the interpretation of his works difficult for the viewer; he likes direct messages without superfluous codes. Each piggy carries different currency depending on the country of exhibition, as the nomenclature of money in Brazil is different from that of the United States, a country that is a superpower. The piggy banks even gather around or follow the Charging Bull of Wall Street, a business central where the stock exchange determines the high and low stocks of a company.

Alexandre Frangioni understands how to use codes, symbols, and universal iconography to move and reflect about the message he wants to convey. His originality makes him the owner of a unique and different production in the context of Brazilian art, due in part to his engineering skills. The memory and the past of Brazil are visualized through this creator’s activities, who – through his self-taught techniques – represents his country in every exhibition, art fair, and event he participates in.

Daniel G. Alfonso. Teórico del arte (Cuba).
AAL Arte Al Limite Magazine

This series of works deals with the relation of values.

The work was initially created when I received a series of old bills of Cruzeiro, Cruzados and Cruzados Novos (all former Brazilian currencies), which belonged to a friend who was an accumulator (not only of money, but of all type of materials, like newspapers, clothes, catalogues, pots…). At first, one of my concerns about the new generations was to understand the effects of past hyperinflation in Brazil. On the other hand, those who actually lived that problem seams to have forgotten about it and have no needs in maintaining alive this concern, so that can be learned by our current and the future generations.

It was thinking about this, that I have produced a set of works using the money bills and other materials related to money as raw materials.

The intension of the Moeda [Currency] series is to address monetary value and its ability to be transformed into material possessions. This happens when I use the bills as a support for the production of low value objects (such as a kite), or in the intervention (with the word NO) on the bill itself, in order to modify its value, or even adding ordinary objects (safes, price labellers) that are directly linked to the value of money itself.

Therefore, I propose to the observer a reflection on the possible relations between values, historical and contemporary, through the different types of currencies and the relations between the objects and materials presented in the works.

The name itself of the exhibition – Coins – paves the way between what is saved or what is forever lost.  Coin does not have the same value as money.  Coins one distributes shamelessly.  Coins we give to the homeless not to be inconvenienced, we leave them at restaurants not to have to carry them in our pockets.  We dispose of them, as we divest them from our body.

At the same time the word Coin carries the weight and stigma of Monetary Value.  This Coin we do not wish to discard.  In spite of the economy being the sphere of production, of circulation, of value (which value?) and finally of politics and power.

In Coins, Alexandre Frangioni proceeds to reflect on the possible relationships between historic and present values.  That fired the spark for the discussion, through his works, on all the values and how they relate with the passing of time, with the breaking up of time, even while time continues without interruption.

By producing the works with old and null/worthless money, these objects attained value, thus, for what they are not, by the intensity of denial of which they are capable.

Alexandre drinks from the source of Brazilian artists, masters such as Nelson Leirner, who by means of the interventions in everyday objects, question the system and the values in art and in society; of Cildo Meireles, who imprinted subversive phrases and of resistance on Brazilian paper money, during the period of military dictatorship.  And of course, on the ready-mades of the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who bring forward the strong Dadaist expression via the use of industrialised objects.

The works in the exhibition space overcome the suggestion of three-dimensional objects that make an effort to define a space in the world: they stage an event.  Such an act, of which we are witnesses, presents itself like an ephemeral crack in real space, leading us to a vivid or imagined past.

The challenge, to the observer, is precisely to detect in the exhibition Coins, a concrete narrative, as the works seem to compose an impossible ballet, actively provoking the spectator.

The vision of the artist is not only a position – it is mainly an attitude towards the relationships between memory, time, money, value and the real importance of the humane.

Adriana Rêde